The Theosophical Society in America

The Man Who Met the Masters: Colonel Henry Steel Olcott

By John Algeo

Originally printed in the SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2008 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Algeo, John. “The Man Who Met the Masters: Colonel Henry Steel Olcott.” Quest  96.5 (SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2008):180-185.

I was made simply to look upon them as men, my fellow-mortals; wiser, truly, infinitely more advanced than I, but only because of their having preceded me in the normal path of human evolution. [ODL 1.15:250]

WHEN COLONEL OLCOTT first met the masters who were working through Helena Blavatsky, he received an impression of them, which much later he recorded in his autobiographical book Old Diary Leaves. The epigraph above is Olcott’s record of that impression. In this sentence, Olcott is talking about three things: himself (“I”), the masters (“them”), and how he and they came to be different (“evolution”). So to unpack the meaning of this sentence, we need to look at those three things: evolution, mastership, and Olcott’s relation to the masters.

Evolution

John Algeo

Evolution has been a dominant topic in the Western world since Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace independently advanced the theory of natural selection (along with heredity and variation) as the means by which evolutionary changes are preserved and propagated. Their theories were made public in 1858; and Darwin’s revolutionary book, On the Origin of Species, was published the following year.

The twentieth-century discovery of genes and their mutations explained how variations originate, which was unknown in the nineteenth century. More recently, evolutionary development biology (called “evo-devo,” for short) has demonstrated how heredity contributes to evolutionary changes. A recent issue of the New York Times (June 26, 2007) included a whole section, “Science Times,” on evolution. So the subject is still developing among scientists.

Today, the “theory” of evolution is accepted fact, and the means by which physical evolution happens are fairly well known. Except for some dogmatic religious fundamentalists, no one doubts the reality of the scientific concept of evolution by natural selection. Yet the scientific concept is not the whole story. A concept of evolution has been part of Indic thought for centuries and is embraced in Theosophical thinking as well. Madame Blavatsky wrote:

 

The idea of Darwinian-like evolution, of struggle for life and supremacy, and of the “survival of the fittest” among the Hosts above as the Hosts below, runs throughout both the volumes of our earlier work [Isis Unveiled]. . . . But the idea was not ours, it is that of antiquity. [SD 1:202]

Theosophical tradition embraces evolution, albeit with some differences from the usual scientific ideas. First, whereas scientific evolution is concerned centrally with changes in material forms, Theosophical evolution postulates three independent but interrelated developments:

It now becomes plain that there exists in Nature a triple evolutionary scheme, for the formation of the three periodical Upadhis [vehicles or expressions]; or rather three separate schemes of evolution, which in our system are inextricably interwoven and interblended at every point. These are the Monadic (or spiritual), the intellectual, and the physical evolutions. [SD 1:121]

Science is necessarily concerned with only the third of these evolutions, as it can consider only material reality, which can be studied objectively and quantified. But intellectual and spiritual evolutions are also real, although subjective and qualitative.


Second, Theosophical evolution recognizes not only causes but also purposes. That is, it is teleological—it holds that evolution has an underlying design and reason, namely subtler expression through physical or material evolution, wider consciousness through intellectual evolution, and increased awareness of the ultimate unity of existence through spiritual evolution:

The whole order of nature evinces a progressive march towards a higher life. There is design in the action of the seemingly blindest forces. [SD 1:277]

Science, however, is concerned exclusively with causes. Theosophy, on the other hand, sees evolution also as matter of progression, design, and control. But design does not imply a “Designer,” that is, a personal God who creates the design. Rather, design is implicit in everything in the universe, and its expression through evolution is the working out of an inherent order:

The Universe is worked and guided from within outwards. . . . The whole Kosmos is guided, controlled, and animated by almost endless series of Hierarchies of sentient Beings, each having a mission to perform, and who . . . are “messengers” in the sense only that they are the agents of Karmic and Cosmic Laws. [SD 1:274]

In this way, Theosophical evolution differs from what today is called “intelligent design,” which may be no more than a way of trying to smuggle the Abrahamic God into what ought to be pure science.

Theosophical evolution also sees the human condition as part of an even wider panorama than does scientific evolution. Human life has evolved out of animal, vegetal, and mineral antecedents, and it has before it future evolution into yet subtler, more expansive, and more unified states of being. Most of us are, at present, only partly human. We are developing our human and rational minds, but within an emotional maelstrom. Our future evolution will increasingly order and organize our emotions and further develop our free intellectual, intuitive, and spiritual natures.

Mastership

Although we are all human, we are not all at the same level of human development. Our partial humanity varies in the degree of its fullness and its incompleteness. Yet there is a sort of common average humanity, from which most of us depart only slightly, however great the differences among us may seem to be.

Nevertheless, some human beings have indeed gone farther than the rest of us in reaching full human stature. They are the saints, sages, Hindu rishis, Tibetan chohans, Confucian jens—enlightened beings—among us. Their numbers include most notably the renowned teachers of humanity, such as the Buddha, Christ, Zoroaster, Confucius, Plato, and so on. And they also include less well-known and somewhat less advanced followers of those greatest ones. In the Theosophical tradition, those advanced humans collectively are called “mahatmas,” “great souls,” or “masters” (that is, those who have mastered the wisdom of life and who are thus qualified to be schoolmasters in the art of living to show the rest of us the way to wisdom).

These masters, as indicated by the quotation from Olcott’s Old Diary Leaves that serves as the epigraph to this article, are not supernatural beings. Instead they are our “fellow-mortals, wiser, truly, infinitely more advanced” than we are, but only because they have gone further than we have “in the normal path of human evolution.” Where they have gone, we can follow. What they are, we can become. Part of their role is to help us along that way of becoming like them. They are our elder brothers, who have a fraternal concern for our well-being.

The existence of such teachers can hardly be doubted. The history of human cultures all over the globe records them and their work. Exceptionally talented, knowledgeable, and successful human beings have existed everywhere and have been generally recognized for their exceptionableness. What is particularly Theosophical is not the recognition of the existence of masters, but is instead an explanation of just how they differ from the rest of us and of their role in the historical process of evolution.

It is also Theosophical tradition that some among those masters were influential in the founding of the Theosophical Society. Indeed, it is said that they were the actual “inner founders” of the Society, who inspired Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott to become its “outer founders” and who guided those two in various ways in their work for humanity through the Society. Both Blavatsky and Olcott claimed to be in touch with the master “inner founders” and to be working for them in the world.

Blavatsky and Olcott were essentially modest people, who claimed no authority, much less infallibility, for themselves. Both of them admittedly made mistakes aplenty during their lives. Furthermore, neither did they claim any infallibility or ultimate authority for their master teachers. Being a master teacher—whether in the outer secular world of music or science or whatever subject, or in the inner sacred world of spiritual aspiration—does not protect one from making mistakes. All humans, even advanced ones, are subject to human error. But the wise are likely to make fewer errors than the foolish and to have better judgment in correcting themselves.

Therefore, both Blavatsky and Olcott were guided to some extent by the master teachers with whom they were in personal contact. That guidance was not in details or usually by specific direction. It concerned goals to be reached, not methods of getting there. It was strategic, not tactical. A wise teacher does not tell a student exactly how to do something, because each of us is in some ways unique and what works well for one person will not work at all for another. Thus each of us has to discover how we can best achieve the ends we strive for. Moreover, making the effort to learn for ourselves how to do a thing is far more educational and long-lasting than just blindly following a set of guidelines. The masters, like all master teachers, do not dictate. They inspire.

Olcott and the Masters

Blavatsky had had some contact with the masters from her childhood. Consequently, she looked upon them as a normal part of her life. She referred to them, but she did not discuss them in any detail or record her specific relationship with them. Olcott, on the other hand, came into knowledge of the masters relatively late in his life, as a result of his meeting with Blavatsky in 1874, when he was in his forty-second year of age. So for him, knowledge of, communications from, and interaction with the masters were all quite remarkable and notable events. Consequently, he noted such events first in his private diaries and later in his published account, Old Diary Leaves.

Olcott’s autobiographical record in Old Diary Leaves of his contact with the masters is an interesting personal history of one man who met the masters. The purpose of the rest of this article is to bring to your attention some of what Henry Olcott had to say about the masters and his dealings with some of them. 

Blavatsky did not spring knowledge of the existence of the masters upon Olcott all at once, but did so gradually. As he says, “Little by little, H. P. B. let me know of the existence of Eastern adepts and their powers” (1.1:17). Through Blavatsky at first, Olcott began correspondence with the masters: “Many of their letters I have preserved, with my own endorsement of the dates of their reception.” The letters continued through much of his life, often under circumstances in which Blavatsky could have had no part.

Olcott’s intercourse with the masters was not limited, however, to correspondence. He describes his first direct personal contact with one of them as follows:

Our evening’s work on Isis was finished, I had bade good-night to H. P. B., retired to my own room, closed the door as usual, sat me down to read and smoke, and was soon absorbed in my book. . . . 

I was quietly reading, with all my attention centered on my book. Nothing in the evening’s incidents had prepared me for seeing an adept in his astral body; I had not wished for it, tried to conjure it up in my fancy, nor in the least expected it. All at once, as I read with my shoulder a little turned from the door, there came a gleam of something white in the right-hand corner of my right eye; I turned my head, dropped my book in astonishment, and saw towering above me in his great stature an Oriental clad in white garments, and wearing a head-cloth or turban of amber-striped fabric, hand-embroidered in yellow floss-silk. . . . He told me . . . that it lay with me alone whether he and I should meet often in this life as coworkers for the good of mankind. . . . Suddenly the thought came into my mind: “What if this be but hallucination; what if H. P. B. has cast a hypnotic glamour over me? I wish I had some tangible object to prove to me that he has really been here; something that I might handle after he is gone!” The Master smiled kindly as if reading my thought, untwisted the fehtâ [turban] from his head, benignantly saluted me in fare-well and—was gone . . . . on the table lay the embroidered head-cloth; a tangible and enduring proof that I . . . had been face to face with one of the Elder Brothers of Humanity. [1.24:377–80]

 

This contact was an astral, not a physical one, yet the turban that remained behind was a solidly material memento of the visit.

After Olcott moved to India, other contacts with the masters appear to have been entirely on the physical plane. Among the most notable of these was an incident at Lahore, when on two successive days, Olcott and a companion, William Brown, were both visited by the master whom Olcott knew as KH On the second evening, Olcott was waiting for a prearranged meeting with the master, about which he reports, “I heard his footsteps on the ground, so it was no wraith, but the man in his external body.” Olcott further reports:

I went to him, we walked off to a safe place at some distance where intruders need not be expected, and then for about a half-hour he told me what I had to know, and what does not concern third parties, since that chapter of T. S. history was long since closed. . . . There were no miracles done at the interview, no magic circles traced on the ground, no gum-burning lamps placed around it and burning with steely-blue flames: just two men talking together, a meeting, and a parting when the talk was over. [3.4:44–5]

Later in Olcott’s life, his connection with some of the masters seems to have become so close that he no longer had any need of either letters or bodily contact (whether such contact was astral or physical). Instead, Olcott believed he was in telepathic contact with the masters. Thus, Olcott relates the following event, which occurred in his sixtieth year:

Just before daybreak, on the 10th of February [1892], I received clairaudiently a very important message from my Guru: its impressiveness was enhanced by the fact that he told me things which were quite contrary to my own belief, and hence it could not be explained away as a case of auto-suggestion. [4.25:442]

In this message, Olcott was told six things, some of which involved specific information that proved to be correct. The first of the six things, however, was particularly surprising. It was that “a messenger from him [the master] would be coming,” whom Olcott should hold himself ready to go and meet. Olcott was greatly impressed by this prediction, so even though he had been told “neither the name of the person nor the time of his or her arrival” (5.8:90–1), he “kept a traveling-bag packed a full year-and-a-half, so as to be ready to start at a moment’s notice.” But for all that time, there was no sequel: “Nothing more having been heard of the matter I had, naturally, come to think that I had, perhaps, been deceived as to the terms of the message.”

Olcott put the matter out of his mind, but two years later, while he was accompanying Annie Besant on a lecture tour in India, he reports that:

The familiar voice again spoke as I lay in that state between sleeping and waking, and said: “This is the messenger whom I told you to be ready to go and meet: now do your duty.” The surprise and delight were such as to drag me at once into the state of waking physical consciousness and I rejoiced to think that I had once more received proof of the possibility of getting trustworthy communications from my Teacher at times when I could not suspect them of being the result of auto-suggestion. The development of Mrs. Besant’s relations with our work in India have been, moreover, what, to me, is the best possible evidence that she is, indeed, the agent selected to fructify the seeds which had been planted by H. P. B. and myself during the previous fifteen years. [5.8:91–2]

An undated Mahatma Letter to A. P. Sinnett includes the following injunction from the Master KH: “Meanwhile use every effort to develop such relations with A. Besant that your work may run on parallel lines and in full sympathy” (ML 463). This letter is tentatively dated by the editor of the chronological edition, Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., in 1884, ten years before the event reported above and five years before Besant joined the Theosophical Society. The editor also comments that the letter “would seem to indicate that the Mahatma K. H. had fore-knowledge of her role in theosophical work.”


What is clear is that Olcott’s identification of Annie Besant as his and Blavatsky’s successor in India and in the world was fully accurate. Furthermore, that identification, which Olcott attributed to his own master, was apparently anticipated a decade earlier by another of the elder brothers.

Conclusions

What shall we make of such communications, of which those cited above are only a few examples? What were the letters, astral appearances, physical contacts, and telepathic messages? Were they all just fraud and imagination, or were they what Olcott thought them to be: veridical contacts with evolved human beings who were using him to further their work in the world? Do masters of the sort Olcott and Blavatsky talked about really exist? Was Olcott in touch with them as he believed himself to be? Answers to those questions cannot be supported by definitive, objective evidence. Instead, such answers depend on initial suppositions about what is possible and what is impossible.


Those who assume a purely materialistic worldview will discountenance any possibility of Olcott’s beliefs being true. They will also reject the whole Theosophical tradition about a triple evolution of matter, intellect, and spirit, as well as Theosophical tradition about the masters as evolved human beings. Similarly, those who are convinced believers in any fundamentalist religion, of whatever creed, will also reject the Theosophical tradition as heretical and damnable.

Theosophy exists as a third way between scientific materialism and religious dogmatism. Theosophists hold Theosophy, not as an infallible statement of absolute truth, but as a way of viewing life that is internally consistent, experientially supported, and pragmatically useful. Henry Steel Olcott lived his life according to that view. Marie Russak, who then served as his secretary, records that on February 3, two weeks before his death, Olcott was visited by four of the masters who came to tell him that his work was over and to thank him for it. The day before that visit, Olcott dictated and signed his last message:

 

To my beloved brothers in the physical body: I bid you all farewell. In memory of me, carry on the grand work of proclaiming and living the Brotherhood of Religions.

To my beloved Brothers on the higher planes: I greet and come to you, and implore you to help me to impress all men on earth that “there is no religion higher than Truth,” and that in the Brotherhood of Religions lies the peace and progress of humanity.

 

So spoke the man who had met the masters: Henry Steel Olcott.


Note: All citations of Old Diary Leaves (ODL) are by volume, chapter, and page(s). Citations of The Secret Doctrine (SD) are by volume and page(s). The citation from the Mahatma Letters is by page in the chronological edition.

John Algeo was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and has lived in Texas, California, Florida, Illinois, and Georgia. John joined the Theosophical Society at the age of sixteen and became president of the Florida Lodge (Miami) while still in his teens. He is a past president of the American Dialect Society, the American Name Society, and the Dictionary Society of North America. John retired in 1994 to accept the presidency of the Theosophical Society in America. He currently serves as international vice-president of the society, is revising his textbook, Origins and Development of the English Language for its sixth edition, and continues to lecture at academic and Theosophical meetings throughout the world.